June 3, 2008

Exhibit 18: Irony

Irony was invented by a French chemist, Claude Delashmit, in the late 1920's. Delashmit was commissioned by a Parisian sweets manufacturer to concoct a candy to compete with bubblegum, which was becoming increasingly popular in French villages and a few unlicensed opium dens.

One afternoon Delashmit was in the process of mixing gum base and toffee for a candy he called sabots de sucre; he abruptly halted his work when he realized he was barefoot. The chemist searched frantically around his laboratory for his shoes, to no avail. Despondent, Delashmit then fatally impaled himself through his stomach with a candy thermometer. French police determined that Delashmit's missing shoes were actually at the bottom of the vat he was mixing at the time. Regardless of the tragedy, the company manufactured the candy to much commercial success, thanks to an ingenious commercial jingle with the chorus "Si délicieux, vous voudrez s'empaler" ("So delicious you'll want to impale yourself"). Delashmit posthumously became a millionaire; his beneficiaries spent the entire sum of his fortune on bubblegum.

From these humble, happenstance beginnings, irony then leaked to the rest of Europe with the help of secret societies and pharmacists with a knack for gallows humor. (An uncured form of irony was also snuck back to America in the satchels of G.I.'s returning from the Second World War, or as the given G.I.'s called it, The Baby Shower.) Artists and authors exploited the new technique to transform their works into new, heretofore uncharted territory: Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea (originally entitled Peppiness), George Orwell's 1984 (originally entitled Last Thursday At The Sunflower Farm With Bunnies), Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit (originally entitled Oom Poppa Mow Mow) and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (originally entitled Piccadilly Circus At The Height Of Tourist Season).

A refined specimen of irony finally reached American shores in the 1950's; Charles Bukowski obtained the first strain of irony while working as a milkman in Utah. As it inevitably trickled into the New York folk, beatnik and art scenes of the 1960's, irony began to have an intoxicating effect on pop and rock lyrics; its sly infiltration into previously benign Brill Building and Tin Pan Alley songs revolutionized creative thought and broke open new layers of meaning, which compensated for the songs' lack of royalty revenue.

A shining example of irony in action was the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane," the original, pre-irony version of which described a far less mischievous New York landscape than the final product:

Standing on the corner
Brochure in my hand
Jack is wearing a modest jacket and tie
Jane is wearing a flair blouse and a sensible skirt that covers her knees
And me, I'm passing out coupons for a Macy's White Sale
I'll do anything for a commission bonus
That is, anything that doesn't call for unreasonable acts of moral turpitude
For example, taking heroin or performing acts of sadomasochism, those are out of the question
I'm very happy I purchased these shoes
They're more sensible than leather boots and my feet don't blister

Jane's a fairly agreeable sort
Jane's a fairly agreeable sort
Well, Jane's a fairly agreeable sort
Jane's a fairly agreeable sort
Makes a darn good casserole as well, oh sing it

Irony worked its magic on several other notable rock songs of the period, reshaping the viewpoint of initially harmless songs like the Stooges' "Now I Want To Take You Out On A Chaperoned Date," the MC5's "Let's Have A Round Of Robust Square Dancing, Gentlefolk" and former Velvet Underground member Lou Reed's "Stroll In A Relatively Safe Suburb With Well-Tended Gardens" ("But she never lost her head/Even when she was clipping hedge").

As with any newly minted literary or narrative device, however, some pop musicians with a glut of enthusiasm were guilty of overusing irony. Unable to wield the gift with the same skillfulness as their more urbanite contemporaries, these musicians' ham-fisted and obvious injection of irony into their lyrics betrayed a quality of perverse naiveté rather than sophistication. One act that was repeatedly culpable in this regard was The Carpenters, who had to rewrite several of their lyrics to repair the awkward use of irony:

We've only just begun, to live
Codpieces and suction cups
A doctor's note and we're on our way
Why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near?
Because they're winged demons of my lust-whip

I'm on the top of the world, looking down on creation
And I wonder if I should even bother with Australia
Sing, sing a song, sing out loud, sing out strong
Especially if it's by Black Oak Arkansas
You have a dirty little tongue, cupcake

Irony is still employed in the present day, mainly amongst the rock critic community when trying to explain the meanings of Pavement songs. It was also famously and mistakenly used by Canadian songstress Alanis Morissette when she confused the meanings of "ironic" and "coincidental"; in her defense, she was going down on an unnamed man in a theatre at the time, which adversely affected her skills of reading for comprehension.

1 comment:

Rummy said...

Ah yes, clipping hedges - which by the way is a courtesy before giving head. One can see how Lou Reed's mind was working as he evolved his creation.

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